Apr 27 2016

K-12 Students Make Science Fiction a Reality with 3D Printing

The Star Trek Replicator Challenge asks students to design 3D printed objects for astronauts to use in space in 2050.

When the astronauts of the future require a replacement part, 3D printers will step in to fill the void. And thanks to the Star Trek™ Replicator Challenge, the students of today will understand that process first-hand.

The Future Engineers challenge — named after a piece of Starfleet technology that generates matter at the push of a button — asks K-12 students to design 3D printable objects that will allow deep-space travelers of the year 2050 to eat nutritious meals during their journeys.

With the May 1 contest deadline looming, entrants are giving her all she’s got: Students from across the country have submitted everything from farming and harvesting solutions to food-storage containers. And NASA, which launched the challenge in partnership with Star Trek and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Foundation, foresees real-world applications for these sorts of innovations.

“Sustainability will be a critical aspect of long-duration space missions and will require off-planet manufacturing technologies to create all of the items our future astronauts need,” Niki Werkheiser, NASA’s in-space manufacturing manager, said in a statement.

The crew of the International Space Station already manufactures small tools using a zero-gravity 3D printer installed on the station in 2014. A second-generation model came aboard in March, and NASA now hopes that the ability to transmit digital designs will reduce the need to ship physical hardware through space, a process that the space agency says costs about $10,000 per payload pound.

ISS Expedition 42 Cmdr. Barry Wilmore holds up a 3D-printed ratchet wrench. Photo: NASA

As for the students participating in the Replicator Challenge, their goal is to take home the grand prize: a trip to New York City, where they’ll see the Space Shuttle Enterprise up close. All eight finalists will also win a MakerBot Replicator Mini Compact 3D Printer for their schools.

“While the Replicator concept from Star Trek is still science fiction, MakerBot Replicator 3D Printers have made 3D printing a reality for thousands of schools around the world,” MakerBot CEO Jonathan Jaglom said in a statement. “3D printing helps inspire the innovators of tomorrow by allowing students to come up with an idea and make it real.”

Or, as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard would say, “Make it so.”

Future Engineers/Paramount Pictures

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